Service Design – and why everyone’s talking about it

Dr Dhruv Sharma gives a talk on user research and service design at FutureScot’s Digital Justice & Policing

“We have had a lot of interest, the emails are near constant,” says Dr Dhruv Sharma, who takes time out of his busy schedule to speak to me.

“We are a team of around 10 and we’re handling all kinds of inquiries. We get things like, ‘Can you find me a service designer?’ to ‘Is there a standard service designer job description?’ and ‘Can you come and help us on a project?’ We’re having to do a lot of prioritisation work right now.”

Sharma is User Research Lead within the Office of the Chief Designer at The Scottish Government. He has been part of a small unit of service design and user researchers that have formed the backbone of a team which, despite its small size, is starting to wield enormous influence over the way government designs its services.

The team is led by Cat Macaulay – the Chief Designer Officer – who has MS herself, and who Sharma says is a public speaker who makes audiences “feel uncomfortable” (in a good way, as she challenges people to think).

Service design is not a new concept and there have always been people whose jobs are based on building a deeper understanding of the way a service – be it private, public or third sector – works, or often fails to work. But there is an argument to be made that service design is now an orthodoxy that is spreading, almost virally, across government and beyond. 

To put it into context, the Office of the Chief Designer was launched in August last year and yet within that relatively short time, more than 200 people from various parts of the public sector have attended its workshops and training sessions. There are now over a hundred ‘service design champions’ across diverse parts of government – both central and local – who are embedding the principles from the ‘Scottish Approach to Service Design’, which have been outlined in a 26-page playbook, within their own practice of delivering services. So what is that approach, and what is uniquely ‘Scottish’ about it, I ask?

“I think the way we look at it is to try and think about how we co-produce the process of service design itself,” says Sharma. “Rather than have a bunch of user researchers asking some questions and then feeding that back to service designers, we try and involve both from the outset. So it’s much more based on co-production throughout. And we also want to make it easier for the organisations to have the skills; we’re not going to train up a service designer in three days, but the playbook is a great place to start when looking for those kind of answers. I like to think of it as a mindset, but it also has a clear set of hands-on tools and methods that people can use. And those resources will hopefully create the capacity and conditions for change. We want to enable, empower and engage people in that process.”

Organisationally, the unit, which sits within the Scottish Government’s Digital Directorate, is split into three distinct parts under Macaulay’s leadership, based on Design (service design, content design and user research), Accessibility and Digital Participation. Most of the team are located at The Scottish Government building in Victoria Quay, in Leith, with some of the digital participation team members situated in Glasgow; there is also a separate piece of work around digital ethics, which is informing the way the unit develops. And there is no doubt it is growing. “We’ve been running service design meetups, which have gone from around 20-25 to something like 47. I think a lot of it is because service design is inherently disruptive, and that generates interest.” 

Sharma was one of the speakers at Digital Justice & Policing – a FutureScot conference – at at The Sheraton Hotel in Edinburgh on October 29; he presented the Scottish Government’s approach, sharing a platform with Amanda Smith, Head of User Centred Policy Design at the Ministry of Justice, and Kate Wallace, Chief Executive of Victim Support Scotland, which is in the early stages of bringing service design principles into the way victims are treated by the criminal justice system in Scotland.

Sharma’s presentation was insightful, and showed how a service design approach often exposes the way multiple services overlap between people who use them, whose lives can be ‘messy and complicated’. 

His unit has worked with Social Security Scotland – a new agency to which new powers have been devolved for distributing benefits – on designing a more humane and empathetic approach when it comes to treating those people. And that is the key point in terms of why organisations should adopt such an approach, so that they get a really deep understanding of the user, and ultimately services can be more inclusive of their needs, rather than the needs of the organisations delivering them, defining the problem first, and then delivering the solution.

In the next iteration of the playbook, which Sharma says is slated for early next year, they are hoping to include more stories from real-life examples of services whose approaches are being transformed. “It will be about the practice, rather than the theory, which was for senior stakeholders,” says Sharma. “We have had a lot of people come to us to ask for stories that they can take back to their bosses.”

Sharma gives a few examples: he says the unit did some work with people living with autism, and how they accessed a fund. After working with a service designer, one of the service users ended up buying a puppy, which helped alleviate some of the symptoms of their anxiety. Another he cites is of work the team did on ‘reasonable adjustments’ that the Scottish Government has made to better accommodate its own staff, in terms of providing a better working environment for people who need additional support. One of the people interviewed as part of the process ended up in tears, because it was the ‘first time anyone had ever listened to them’. “We also made some horrible discoveries about people hiding their disabilities,” Sharma adds.

In service design terms, those discoveries are increasingly helping policy-makers to sharpen their skills and deliver better services. 


This article appeared in the Autumn issue of FutureScot Magazine, distributed in The Times Scotland on Saturday, November 23.

To access the content of the magazine visit the following link.